Trains fit for the future? Contents


Transport is the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the UK, accounting for 27% of total emissions. Rail travel is a naturally low-carbon transport mode, comprising less than 2.5% of total transport emissions and about 0.6% of the UK’s total emissions. Trains in Great Britain, however, still rely predominantly on diesel traction for their power. Railway traction accounts for the greatest proportion of emissions within rail, and these emissions are almost entirely from diesel train operation. Alternative, cleaner technologies are available and in use on parts of the network. Most notably, electrification has been in use for many decades to power trains. Battery and hydrogen-powered trains are in their relative infancy but provide the potential for a cleaner alternative to diesel traction.

In February 2018, the then Minister for Rail, Jo Johnson MP, challenged the rail industry to “remove all diesel-only trains off the track by 2040.” In June 2019, the UK Government set legally binding targets to reduce net emissions of greenhouse gases by 100% relative to 1990 levels by 2050—commonly referred to as the “net zero” target. In response, all sectors of the UK economy—including rail—will be required to reach virtually zero or zero greenhouse gas emissions if the national net-zero emissions target is to be achieved. For rail to support the UK in achieving its net-zero legislative target, diesel operation would need to reduce and potentially cease.

In September 2020, Network Rail published its Traction Decarbonisation Network Strategy (TDNS). Network Rail examined the 15,400 single track kilometres (STK) of unelectrified track in Great Britain and assessed which decarbonised power source—electrification, battery or hydrogen—would be the most efficient replacement for diesel. The TDNS recommended 11,700 STK for electrification (76% of the available track), 900 STK for hydrogen (6%), 400 STK for battery (3%) and 2,300 STK for further analysis (15%).

We welcome the Department for Transport’s reaffirmation that it is committed to removing all diesel-only trains by 2040, including freight trains. This will be a hugely important step in ensuring a greener, decarbonised rail network, which will be necessary for the Government to meet its legally binding net-zero target by 2050. The industry now needs a clear strategy from the Government on how to decarbonise the network. We recommend that the Department for Transport publishes a long-term strategy for decarbonising the rail network as a matter of priority. This should include a vision for what proportion of the future network will use electrification, battery, and hydrogen. This should be supported by appropriate costings, a credible delivery plan, and enabling targets and milestones.

Dedicated long-term investment will be essential to meet the considerable challenge of decarbonising the rail network by 2050. There are likely to be pressures on public spending in the coming years as the country recovers from the pandemic. However, measures to decarbonise our transport sector should be a Government priority. We call on the Department to work closely with other Government Departments, including the Treasury, to secure agreement on the levels of funding necessary to begin implementing a long-term decarbonisation programme of the rail network.

As recommended by our predecessor Committee in 2018, the best way to deliver efficient and cost-effective electrification is to establish a rolling programme of electrification over the next 30 years. A rolling programme of electrification should also support the delivery of the Government’s “green industrial revolution” and “levelling up” economic disparities between the regions. The task of decarbonisation belongs to successive governments, but this administration must take the first steps towards meeting the 2050 “net zero” target. We recommend that the Department commits to a 30-year rolling programme of electrification projects and sets this out in its long-term rail decarbonisation strategy.

The scale of change required to meet the 2040 and 2050 rail decarbonisation targets is considerable. We believe it would be beneficial to start the electrification programme as soon as possible, rather than wait for the start of the next control period in 2024. This would also enable the industry to retain the workforce skills and experience it has developed through recent electrification schemes. In responding to this Report, if not earlier, the Department should publish the list of “no regret” electrification schemes identified by Network Rail and confirm which schemes they intend to deliver as a priority, the costs of doing so, and the timeframes.

We believe that battery and hydrogen technology should play an important part in decarbonising the rail network and should feature prominently in the Department’s long-term decarbonisation rail strategy. New technology should be embraced although we recognise that at present both battery and hydrogen have limitations in that neither can deliver the energy demands required for high-speed rail and freight services. The Department must make the case within Government to ensure that hydrogen trains are fully incorporated within the forthcoming national Hydrogen Strategy. This will help ensure the roll out of this new technology is properly co-ordinated and supported by appropriate infrastructure. In its response to this Report, the Department should provide more information on how it intends, working with other Government departments, to support the growth of a domestic battery industry to ensure this form of technology can be utilised on the railway.

Encouraging modal shift from road to rail freight will be an essential part of ensuring the transport sector contributes to the net zero 2050 target. It is therefore crucial that any action taken to decarbonise the rail network does not have the adverse effect of distorting the competitiveness of the rail freight market and pushing freight onto the road. As part of its upcoming cross modal freight strategy, the Department should ensure there is a single cross-modal freight decarbonisation target including both rail and road freight.

Although the main focus of our inquiry was the decarbonisation of trains, our terms of reference also considered how to make trains fit for the future from an accessibility perspective. Public transport must be accessible to all and it is an unacceptable failure that several train companies have consistently failed to meet targets to make their trains fully accessible, despite having had 11 years to do so. In our view, the Department’s response of extending the legal deadline and requiring monthly progress reporting does not treat this matter with the appropriate seriousness it deserves. In responding to this Report, the Department must set out how it will ensure the outstanding train operators meet the legal requirement to make their trains fully accessible and what sanctions will be used if they once again fail to meet the deadline. We will monitor this situation closely.

Published: 23 March 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement